I had an interesting encounter the other day.

Flying back from Los Angeles I was seated on the plane next to a young man suffering from the worst case of aviophobia (fear of flying) I have ever seen. He was doing his best to keep it together, rocking back and forth and rhythmically snapping a rubber band wrapped around his wrist.

Having experienced panic attacks first hand in the past I empathized with my travel companion and decided to try and help him out. I stroke a casual conversation and noticed that the more we talked the more he seemed distracted from his flight anxiety.

That’s when I decided to try a little experiment.

I grabbed my GearVR from the carry on luggage stowed in the overhead compartment and slotted my phone into it.

“Have you ever tried Virtual Reality?” I asked
“No, not yet.”
“Would you like to?”
“Sure,” he said, intrigued.

Now, this could have gone wrong very easily. The sensation of experiencing VR could have multiplied with the anxiety of (relatively turbulent) flight making him feel even worse. I made sure to explain the possible risks involved, but at this point he was definitely intrigued and willing to give it a try.

I queued up a couple of experiences (including my own films, of course) and gave him a quick rundown on how to use the headset.

For the next 10 minutes, my neighbor transported himself away from the airplane and toured a number of virtual worlds instead.

I did not have enough juice in my phone to last the whole flight, and as soon as the VR program concluded, his anxiety returned. Fortunately, it was a short trip and we were already beginning our landing sequence.

I spent a few more minutes chatting with my companion and getting his feedback on the experience, but soon had to end our conversation as the final minutes of the approach were the worst part of the trip and he had to fall back into his routine.

Anxious BMO

Placebo effect

From what I was told, experiencing VR did not alleviate the fear of flight. My neighbor was still able to feel the shaking of the plane and the vibration of its engines.

What it did though – was to overwhelm the senses with a completely new experience. An experience so interesting and engaging, it managed to completely distract the viewer – refocusing the mind away from his aviophobia. For 10 minutes or so, VR kept his brain occupied with stimuli so intense, the man missed a few pretty bad shakes our plane had.

…and that’s pretty good, if you ask me.